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Sunday Night Special: Green Fish Curry & Spiced Carrots

It’s strange that there were two Costco stories in the New York Times on Sunday. Technically, only one, “Spending: 24 Rolls of Toilet Paper, a Tub of Salsa and a Plasma TV,” was specifically about Costco. But they did choose to illustrate the article about Islam in the suburbs with an imam, his wife and a giant bag of Tostitos. And also printed one of my favorite quotes ever:

“The Prophet said, ‘Whoever is frugal will never suffer financially,’ ” said the imam, who shops weekly at the local store and admits to praying for its owners. He smiled. “These are the people who will go to heaven.”

So telling that he speaks fervently of a New Jersey location. I don’t know if anyone affiliated with the Brooklyn branch (that he apparently had the good sense to stay away from during his many years in Bay Ridge, just one neighborhood away from the borough’s only Costco) will be seeing pearly gates in their future.

James got up early and ventured to the soul-sucking Sunset Park location for Superbowl wings. I stayed in bed because I don’t do NYC Costcos (while still crowded, the one in Edison, NJ is a dream. They have a huge wine department and you can actually get samples because in the suburbs customers aren’t deranged and mobbing for slices of Uncrustables, thimble-sized paper cups of squash soup, organic apple wedges and kielbasa slivers).

Later in the afternoon, I did naively try to run in and out of the Red Hook Fairway for a few items. Big mistake. I ended up sweaty and angry and minus dashi and pita bread (though I had an epiphany in the organic baking aisle where I accidentally ended up after being shoved around a bit. I’d been looking for frozen grated or shredded unsweetened coconut, which you sometimes find in Asian shops and frequently find in Latin American stores. Neither exists in Carroll Gardens and the bag I had stashed in the freezer had gone bad and tasted like earwax. I’m glad I tested a pinch before using it. But you can find non-frozen shredded coconut with no added sugar near things like Newman-O’s and spelt pasta, if you happen to have those types of groceries where you shop. I try to stay away from such things).

I haven’t posted one of these look at what I made missives in a while because I haven’t done any heavy-duty weekend cooking lately. I decided to take to the kitchen this Sunday, primarily as procrastination tactic. I’m supposed to turn in some writing by end of month but would rather tackle Indian recipes than come up with punchy ways to describe non-descript dining rooms.

I bought Mangoes & Curry Leaves some time ago, and while it’s pretty to look at I haven’t cooked a single thing from the book (there might be a correlation between glossiness and perceived usefulness. Years ago I received a paperback review copy of Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweetand cooked from it a ton. Maybe if I had the whopping, coffee table version I would’ve been hesitant to use it).

I’ve been trying to eat more fish and use up forgotten freezer items so green curry tilapia was perfect. I had everything I needed except the above-described shredded coconut. The curry leaves I’d frozen ages ago seemed to have held up ok. When I was in Kuala Lumpur I visited a family that had fragrant things like curry leaves and pandan just growing in their backyard. While no fan of farming or gardening, it would be pretty cool to just step outside and snip or pluck what you need for any given recipe. I swapped flounder for tilapia because that’s what I happened to have.

The recipe ended up being more labor intensive than I’d anticipated but that’s often a hallmark of a chosen Sunday meal. I took the suggested side dish literally and made spiced grated carrots, which furthered my thrifty use things up theme. I’m scared to death of mold and passed pull by dates but I had a full fat Fage yogurt in the refrigerator that had expired four days earlier that I couldn’t bear to toss out because it was $1.79 (20 cents cheaper at the weirdo desolate Italian store on Court St. than at the Korean deli next store). I didn’t realize it wasn’t the 2% version until after I bought it and couldn’t fit it into my recent strict-ish eating regimen without like not eating breakfast, lunch and snacks for a day. So, it smelled and tasted fine (I’ve gotten a bad Greek yogurt, it’s pretty unmistakable) and I was thrilled to save it from the trash. In case you were wondering, I don’t worry about fat grams and calories on Sundays (honestly, I don’t worry about them half as much as I should during the week either. I’m not a Cathy about what I consume and you couldn’t pay me to eat Tasti D Lite. I’m not buying that Pinkberry bullshit either—frozen yogurt is not food). Sheesh, it’s the day of rest.

The two dishes were a smart pairing. The fish was hotter than I’d expected (I didn’t seed the chiles), sharp flavors slightly mitigated by the 4 tablespoons of butter/ghee you use for “tempering” the dish. The carrots were sweet and tangy. Both had earthy qualities from the black mustard seed and curry leaves. Unfortunately, I forgot that in a moment of hippiness I bought brown basmati rice at Trader Joe’s. It actually has a nice chewy quality and psychologically counterbalanced the butter and yogurt that laced everything else on my plate.

I took quite a few photos of this meal, but no matter what they came out mildly unappetizing. I'm not sure if that's due to a lack of plating or photography skills.

Tilapia Green Curry

About 1 1/2 pounds tilapia or other fish fillets
1/4 cup coconut oil or vegetable oil
2 teaspoons black mustard seeds
1/2 cup fresh or frozen curry leaves
2 cups water (1 cup if using tomato)
4 to 6 pieces fish tamarind, or substitute 1 cup chopped (preferably green) tomatoes
1 1/4 teaspoon salt

Masala Paste:
3 tablespoons chopped ginger
1 tablespoon chopped garlic
1/2 cup chopped shallots
6 green cayenne chiles, seeded and coarsely chopped
1/2 cup packed coriander leaves and stems
1/2 cup fresh or frozen grated coconut, or substitute dried shredded coconut mixed with 1 tablespoon water
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon turmeric

About 4 tablespoons ghee or butter
4 to 6 fresh or frozen curry leaves
1/2 cup sliced shallots
2 tablespoons minced garlic or garlic mashed to a paste
3 green cayenne chiles, stemmed and cut in half

Rinse the fish fillets, cut into 2-inch pieces, and set aside.

To prepare the masala paste, place the ginger, garlic, shallots, chiles, and fresh coriander in a food processor, mini-chopper, or stone mortar and process or grind to a coarse paste. Add the coconut and process or grind to a paste (if the mixture seems dry, add a little water as necessary to make a paste). Transfer to a bowl and stir in the ground coriander and turmeric; set aside.

To prepare the tempering, heat the ghee or butter in a medium heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Toss in the curry leaves, wait a moment, then add the shallots and garlic. Lower the heat to medium and cook until starting to soften, for about 4 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the chiles and cook until the shallots are very soft and touched with brown, about 5 minutes more. Set aside.

Heat the oil in a wok or karhai or a heavy pot over medium-high heat. Add the mustard seeds, and when they have popped, add the curry leaves and masala paste. Lower the heat to medium and cook, stirring occasionally, until the oil rises to the surface, about 5 minutes. Add the water and fish tamarind or tomatoes and bring to a boil. Add the salt and the fish and simmer, turning the fish once, for 3 to 5 minutes, until just barely cooked through.

Add the tempering mixture and simmer for a minute, then serve hot.

Serves 4-5

Spiced Grated Carrots, Kerala Style

2 tablespoons raw sesame oil or vegetable oil
1 teaspoon black mustard seeds
Abuot ½ cup minced onion
¼ teaspoon tumeric
1 tablespoon minced ginger or giner mashed to a  paste
2 green cayenne chiles, slit lengthwise and seeded
About 10 fresh or frozen curry leaves
3 to 4 medium carrots, coarsely grated (About 1 ½ cups)
½ teaspoon salt, or more to taste
Coarsely ground black pepper (optional)
About ½ cup plain yogurt, preferably full-fat

Heat the oil in a medium heavy skillet or a wok or karhai over medium-high heat. Add the mustard seeds and partially cover until they pop, then add the onion and turmeric and stir-fry for 2 minutes. Add the ginger, chiles, and curry leaves and stir-fry until the onion is very soft, about another 5 minutes. Toss in the carrots, salt, and pepper, if using. Stir-fry for about 5 minutes, or until the carrots are very soft.

Turn the heat to very low. Add the yogurt and stir for a minute or so to warm the yogurt through and blend flavors; do not allow it to boil.

Serve in a shallow bowl.

Serves 4

Recipes from Mangoes & Curry Leaves by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid. Artisan, 2005.


1/2 *I didn’t realize that chains could just go changing their raison d’etre willy-nilly but it appears that Pardo’s has switched from pollo a la brasa to ceviche and changed its name to Panca. (6/08)

I'm crazy for foreign chains but Pardo’s didn’t arrive with the fanfare of Beard Papa, Uniqlo or even Kyotofu. Perhaps the Japanese are just masters of drumming up enthusiasm (though I’m not sure that Gyu-Kaku has been a sweeping success). It’s a likable enough place so I’m hoping it doesn’t go the way of Brooklyn’s Pollo Campero.

Pardos_cocktailsPardo’s is a Peruvian chain specializing in rotisserie-grilled chicken. This is their first U.S. location and I’d be curious how closely the two menus resemble each other. They didn’t eliminate the anticuchos, beef heart skewers, which I imagine skeeve out more than few West Villagers. I don’t imagine there’s a Piscopolitan cocktail on the Lima menu, though. It’s pretty safe to guess that more than half of the clientele on a very busy Friday night were South American.

Pardos_chickenThe small, brightly lit room can barely contain the amount of diners and potential diners. I couldn’t relax the entire meal, even after a well-made pisco sour (that's a pisco libre to the left of the martini glass). The tables are so tight and precariously placed that I was constantly waiting for someone to knock something over on me. I will say that the waitresses (they’re all young females) are some of the most friendly, upbeat service workers I’ve encountered in a restaurant that’s one step up from fast food. Maybe they imported them because the leisurely pace that tables got turned over and bills were brought out was very un-NYC in lack of urgency.

Pardos_yuquitasWe tried half a chicken brasa and half parrillero, the brasa being rotisserie style and parrillero a grilled boneless fillet. Who knows what the advertised 14 secret ingredients were, but salt is definitely one of them (to be fair, I’m a notorious under-salter. I have to consciously add what seems like extra when cooking for others. It’s strange that I have high blood pressure since I’m practically on an unintentional low-sodium diet). I preferred the classic spit-roasted version, both styles were juicy throughout, no cottony white meat.

Pardos_tacu_tacuThere are quite a few sides to choose from, we got yuquitas, commonly called yucca fries, which are rapidly becoming one of my favorite fried starches, and tacu tacu, which are croquettes of beans and rice mashed together into fat little logs. Mayonnaise and a creamy aji sauce using yellow South American chiles come on the side. Despite the cute name, tacu tacu was kind of dull, I would’ve expected more pizzazz from a fritter. I might try canario beans instead if I went again.

Even though our spot was being eyed by anxious couples, we decided to have a slice of tres leches cake anyway. We couldn’t disappoint our waitress who highly recommended it and checked back to make sure we were enjoying it. Only a monster would hate tres leches cake.

Pardo's * 92 Seventh Ave. S., New York, NY


1/2 On the few extended English vacations I’ve taken to visit my sister, I’ve become convinced that my legs were morphing into two stubby chip appendages. It starts with tuber thighs and next thing you know, you’re a human chip butty. Lately, a new starchy vegetable has started taking root on my limbs. I can probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve eaten yuca. And yet after eating at Sabrosura, I’d gotten my third stomach full in four days. I never knew the true meaning of sticks to your ribs until I met this Caribbean staple. I see how it does its job as cheap filling foodstuff but I think it’s wise that I start laying off the yucca fries.

Sabrosura_outside Other than a soft pretzel at the zoo, I’ve never eaten a bite in the Bronx. It’s a whole new frontier begging to be explored (even the Times headed up this week). I wasn’t sure what to expect from Castle Hill but the first thing I laid eyes on after stepping out of the car was a toddler on a leash. Awesome! Just when I’d had it with all the foul Park Slope mom mayhem. No precocious roaming free, self-expression in the Bronx. They probably spank there too. At least I wouldn’t have to worry about loose un-paddled children ruining my Domincan-Chinese meal.

The menu is voluminous (I suggest looking at it online). I didn’t even know where to begin. Take out classics like beef with broccoli? Local stuff like grilled meat with yellow rice and plantains? They call themselves a seafood restaurant, which is supplemented by plastic fish on the wall, netting above a front area that looks like it should be a bar but isn’t. But beyond fried shrimp I’m not sure that seafood is the standard order.

Sabrosura_curryThe guys who seem more in charge are Chinese, the busboys looked Mexican, the clientele was mixed with white couples, Spanish families (I’m using that in the NYC sense, just for fun…when in Rome, though I’m not ever going to say Ore-uh-gone for Oregon) and no Asians. I always wonder how many Chinese actually eat corner “Chinese” food in the city. There’s got to be Mexicans who love Taco Bell.

While nibbling complimentary garlic bread, we decided on chicken curry, chofan and yuca mofongo. Curry is odd because there’s nothing particularly Chinese about it. It ended up being soupy yellow curry in the sense that it’s seasoned with curry powder, closer to Japanese curry than anything, kind of sweet and dotted with peas and carrots. It wasn’t like we were expecting Thai or Malaysian food so this wasn’t shocking. Choice for sides inlcuded maduros, tostones, yucca or rice. We got tostones.

Sabrosura_chofanChofan is their Nuevo Latino fried rice (there are other versions in the Chinese section). I’d just seen Chaufa, a similar dish, on a Peruvian menu. Everyone loves fried rice. This version had the extra additon of chicharrone. We paid the extra $2 for shrimp too. I take excess seriously.

The mofongo is where it got weird. I wanted the version with a side of fried pork chunks that I saw in a laminated flip menu on a little plastic stand. What I ended up with was an unadorned softball of yuca (you’re offered this starch or more typical plantain) in a bowl of gravy. Mofongo will put you into a coma. I’d never even heard of the dish until a few years ago. It’s not like I grew up with any Puerto Ricans, and I wonder if this is something a contemporary Boricua even orders. You don’t see blogs dedicated to mofongo worship (then again, you don’t see many Latin American food blogs period. Asian females seem to have the corner on the I eat and write about it market. I don’t want to generalize so I’ll have to look into this further before coming to conclusions. I think a big part of it is that Latin American blogs don’t tend to be in English, duh. Cooking Diva, a Panamanian blog is one of the few I can think of off the top of my head). Maybe it’s like tuna casserole, an old standard that some people in parts of the country might still eat. Or maybe it’s d.i.y. hip—I found a vegetarian, nay vegan recipe in ReadyMade.

Sabrosura_mofongoWe picked at maybe 1/3 of the mash-blob and had to pack it in. But the leftovers fortified me the next day during a 12-hour work shift where there was no time to take a break. No, I don’t perform manual labor so it’s doubtful I burned off all the carbs but it definitely kept hunger at bay. I recently was given a subscription to a British food magazine and they’re all obsessed with the GI diet over there. I don’t even want to think about where yuca falls on the glycemic index.

Sabrosura * 1200 Castle Hill Ave., Bronx, NY

Salud! Restaurant & Bar

Salud_bean_dip_1 I never intended to eat plantains for three courses at lunch. The plantain chips and bean dip was a freebie. You can partake or not but I’ve never been one to ignore a bread basket or facsimile. That was my first mistake.

It made sense to do the three-course $20 prix fixe since my original plan to order two tapas/appetizers would’ve cost even more. I don’t normally delve into the double digits for a weekday lunch, though I’m unusually frugal by even cheapskate standards. Trying to keep my daily total under $4 usually translates into a tiny midtown soup or bagel. But Salud is at the Seaport, which is an extension of the Financial District. James, who works nearby, didn’t think the prices were out of line.

Salud_stuffed_plantains I shouldn’t gone with my initial instinct and started with ceviche but instead I was swayed by sweet plantains stuffed with spicy beef and monterey jack. It sounded gooey and decadent, but in reality it was starch with barely perceptible dashes of ground meat and cheese. The maduros completely overwhelmed the other flavors.

Garlic shrimp seemed safe, but they didn’t come solo. Oh no, the little crustaceans aligned next to a tidy row of tostones. It’s a good thing I’m not low-carbing it. However, I am trying to eat less and shun sugar, but dessert was part of the meal so I was semi-forced to eat a perfectly acceptable flan (which apparently I enjoyed enough to eat before remembering to take a photo).

Salud_garlic_shrimpThere appears to be a Cuban theme in music and style, but the menu is more of a Caribbean mish mash. I can see Salud being good for happy hour drinks if you worked nearby but it’s not distinctive enough to attract diners from beyond the neighborhood. Now that I think about it, it’s the kind of place that would pop up in my neighborhood (Carroll Gardens) and fail to excite me. Un-hideous but far from amazing.

Salud! Restaurant & Bar * 142 Beekman St., New York, NY

Duck for Cover

Poopoffwipes_1 After reading this Times article about magical thinking, it’s clear that I’m an adherent, irrational as it is. Yesterday I was minding my business near the Seaport (no, I wasn’t checking out the Will Smith shoot—I was trying a restaurant) when something flicked out at me from the corner of my eye. I’m a jumpy person so it made me twitch. I looked around and realized that I’d been shit on. There was a warm (I could feel it through the Kleenex) olive green streak that looked like it’d been piped out of a tiny cake-decorating tip. I couldn’t help but think this was a bad omen that was bound to mess up something. But the only important (I use the word loosely) thing on my horizon was an online Jeopardy contestant test (I actually did an in-person test in like ’99 and was rapidly eliminated. I think now they screen people before that stage) scheduled for 8pm.

I’ve generally had middling to poor luck over the years (I’m not just being negative. My mom even told me ages ago “you were born under a rain cloud” or “you’re followed by a rain cloud.” I’m not sure which, and have never understood memoirists who write paragraphs of decades-old dialogue—can they possibly remember word for word every conversation they’ve had? They’re totally making that shit up. Anyway, I don’t think parents are supposed to say things like that, but it’s no biggie since I’ve been spared from clichés like when are you getting married, when will I get grandkids, you could stand to lose a few pounds) and yet I’ve never been literally shit on before (well, there was an accidental incident with an old boyfriend but the feces didn’t make skin contact) so logically a bird pooping on me and messing up a test should have nothing to do with each other. In fact, it should be the opposite. A rare occurrence should engender another rare occurrence, if anything. Avian crap=blessing from heaven.

After eating the meal that was the original reason for heading to the Seaport, I noticed that I had streaks of shit all over the collar of my coat and that a wad had caked strands of my hair together. I started feeling less blessed.

And yes, I pretty much bombed my Jeopardy test. They don’t give you instant results but I’d be surprised of I got more than 60% of the questions right. But I did feel good about knowing that Belize is name of former British Honduras, which I just randomly learned a couple nights ago when I cracked open a musty 1968 volume of Latin America from the Time-Life Foods of the World series. I was struck by the colorful map inside because I’d never even heard of British Honduras. (Very unrelated: every so often I get traffic coming here searching for Honduran Pussy. Foul as I can be, I'm pretty sure I've never written about such a subject.) So, that was one less wrong answer out of 50. Thank you Time-Life and thank you loose-bowled bird.

It was news to me that bird diapers exist, but duck clothing? And I thought dogs had all the fun.

809 Sangria Bar & Grill

1/2 Certain segments of the population like to brag about never setting foot above 14th Street (or somesuch nebulous boundary). Whatever (that’s actually less offputting than those who silently yet resolutely refuse to  venture beyond the 11211 zip code). But if I didn’t work in midtown, it’s not that likely I’d frequent the 40s or higher on a regular basis. Upper Manhattan and the Bronx? Ok, now I’m totally clueless and a little hesitant.

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I made the A train journey up to Inwood for a meal. I wasn’t scared like I thought I was going to be knifed or something, the unknown just makes me nervous. I feel the same way about Staten Island (I like to believe I have a better than average grasp on Brooklyn and Queens). NYC is an insular place. I currently work in a deparment of ALL native New Yorkers, which is pretty rare in my experience (no, I don’t work for the NYPD or FDNY or the city) and I wouldn’t be surprised if many (not all, mind you) of the five were unfamiliar with the neighborhoods outside of where they grew up and/or presently reside. I only know places where friends congregate or where good food lurks.

809_arepa_trio_1My initial impression of Inwood wasn't bad. Of course my only exposure was walking three blocks to and from the Dykeman Avenue station but it seemed akin to Sunset Park or South Slope: a Payless Shoes, H&R Block, Subway, Dunkin Donuts, Chinese take out…I’m not sure if there was a Jimmy Jazz or not but there should’ve been. Lots of chains, a little grit, and no signs of gentrification beyond 809 Sangria Bar and Grill, my destination.

You might not even notice it from the street, it’s not flashy. The brightly lit, neon heavy place with sandwiches in the window, next store, made more of an impression. And I’m not sure how well they’re attracting diners (I think they’re doing a good job bringing crowds to the upstairs lounge, which is only open the last few days of the week). Our table was the only one occupied for a spell. Eventually two couples came in and as we were wrapping up a few other groups stopped by, one with like three children under three. Dates, partiers, newborns all welcome.

I’ll admit that the prices are high for the area (my entrée was $24) but it’s not a case of unwarranted gouging. The cooking is creative and the dishes are well thought out. The style borrows from The Domincan Republic (as everyone points out, 809 is the area code in the D.R.) and beyond and manages to avoid boring mango and avocado laced pan-Latino cliches.

809_stuffed_snapperI might’ve gone for a ceviche if I were solo, but the arepa trio topped with tufts of ropa vieja, pork picadillo and shredded chicken were moist and each distinctly flavored.There are two ways to go with entrees: the pick your meat, side and sauce churrasco or opting for seafood. My dining companion (logically chosen as my only friend who lives in the hundreds) has a reputation for being fussy, things that lived in the water or items with bones don’t please her. I was a little nervous but she eventually settled on a medium well skirt steak with yucca fries and three colorful sauces (I couldn’t tell you what they were). She didn’t complain so I’m assuming her meal didn’t completely suck.

I was pleased with the pargo relleno, a whole crispy-skin red snapper stuffed with a seafood risotto. The lightly spiced echilado-coconut sauce tasted slightly Thai, which I loved. Sometimes, I forget the lime, coconut and chiles similarities between Southeast Asia and the Carribean.

I totally didn’t need an 809 Mojito (rum, apple pucker, peach schnapps, fresh plums and peaches) and tres leches cake. My teeth almost rotted out. I’m trying to learn moderation in 2007, though it’s slow going. I pretended that I was being healthy by only eating half my fish, never mind that it was fried and doused in creamy saturated fat.

809_tres_leches_cakeOn my (long) way home, I decided that they’re nice in Inwood. As we were heading into the subway station, a guy on his way out gave me his soon-to-expire Metrocard (this may not seem like a big deal if you’re an unlimited buyer but I’ll gladly accept the $2 gift since I’m a pay per ride gal). The train was already at the platform as we were approaching the bottom of the stairs and a guy held the doors for us. Annoying when you’re in the car, yes, but it wasn’t rush hour and the train was practically empty since it was the second stop from the end of the line. Syrupy cocktails and a few glasses of Shiraz tend to cloud my thinking in more ways than one, they also have a way of inducing rare warm, fuzzy, mankind is ok feelings. I like people so much more when I have a few drinks in my system.

So, if you ever find yourself around W. 200th Street and are craving lamb chops, onion confit, balsamic panela reduction and ajillo mashed potatoes rather than cuchifritos, 809 is probably a good choice.

809 Sangria Bar & Grill * 112 Dyckman St., New York, NY

Rainy Days and Sundays

I’m not watching Iron Chef America (I rarely watch it anyway) because I unwisely agreed to do a twelve-hour Sunday shift. Nuts. Do you ever get that feeling of overwhelming dread on Sunday nights? (I assumed this was a common malady but I think it only applies to people who must do scheduled work for a living, and more and more I’m realizing that a good number of New Yorkers don’t fall under that category.) I had a bad case of Sunday evening sickness last night.

Iron_chefSometimes it helps to just mindlessly watch TV until you can’t keep your eyes open. I watched some house flipping shows, that Alton Brown episode of his non Good Eats show where he falls off a motorcycle and breaks his arm, The Hills Have Eyes II (not to be confused with this year’s sure to suck remake) and The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. Somewhere in there was a commercial for a Morimoto-Cantu battle (I’m a total word mangler, but in conjunction with style—isn’t the correct term flair, not flare?). James was like, “who the heck is Cantu?” (without saying heck, that’s more what I would say). The ad was attention grabbing because it showed the chef wearing a head set and all sorts of devices and lasers were being employed.

I forget that people have lives that don’t involve fairly useless restaurant happenings. I just thought that everyone knew about the inkjet sushi in the way that the $59 DB burger was mainstream knowledge from all the press coverage. I also filled him in on the (unresolved to me) Mariani scandal. I also mentioned that I would love to try Moto, even if it’s a lot of gimmick.
I like it when I’m unintentionally convincing. A few minutes later it was decided that we’d go to Moto on Feb. 15 for a day-late Valentine’s dinner (it’s not like I’m so highbrow as to declare the 14th an off limits amateur night—the date was simply blocked out on Open Table). All right, Chicago. I’m not crazy about hotdogs or deep-dish pizza but they should also be added to the list. I am crazy about crab rangoon, so I practically started bawling when I discovered that Trader Vic’s had been kicked out of its Windy City location about a year ago. Perhaps food crafted from lasers AND bongo-bongo soup would’ve been too much goodness in a short time frame.

So, I’m not thrilled about this noon-midnight work predicament I’m presently in but I’m less glum than I was thinking about it last night. If I didn’t have periodic pick me ups (like Vegas in December) I’d seriously lose my mind. I’m lucky that I have something to look forward to every now and then, even if it means losing two day’s wages (freelancing can be cruel when your hourly rate isn’t up to snuff) to go on my midwestern culinary excursion. I’m trying to figure out how I never took a vacation in my twenties and slept on the floor and had even less money (though also less debt) than I do now and didn’t mind. Is that a Portland-NYC thing or a rising expectations with age thing? In my forties I’ll probably look back in horror at my current cell phone-less self.

Tacos Matamoros

1/2 I can only say so much about tacos (which isn’t to say that others have no problem filling this niche. I envy single-minded bloggers—I’m way too scattered for such focus and devotion. I fear it’s a case of jack-of-a-few-trades, master of none). This is just an addendum to an older entry before I started taking photos like some foodie freak.

I’m always torn over whether or not to bother with updates, but like Mr. Miles told me in eighth grade social studies, “you have diarrhea of the mouth.” (That seriously pissed me off at the time—I was not a fan of Mr. Miles. He once kicked me out of class until I’d apologize for something he misheard me saying. This went on for days until I was forced by my guidance counselor to say sorry. He even called my house at night during Cheers and told my mom “I was the rudest student he’d ever encountered.” After that, she wasn’t a fan of Mr. Miles either.)

I do miss living close to good tacos. I wasn’t crazy about Red Hook’s El Huipil on my one visit, but it’s the only real Mexican place currently within semi-reasonable walking distance. But apparently, they’ve closed shop. Back to Sunset Park.

I didn’t intend to order a torta and taco, both pastor. I was thinking carnitas for the sandwich but they were out. Oh well, pork is pork. I had forgotten that Matamoros makes munchkin sized tacos but they’re only $1 each. I would’ve just ordered a variety and left it at that but I’m a sucker for tortas. I frequently feel guilty eating too much food, but the two average-sized young women sitting across from me had cemitas (a big brother to the torta) and healthy-sized bowls of sopas. What a great idea—I’d never even considered a Mexican soup and sandwich combo.

They don’t have specials like many other restaurants in the area but the listed plates are popular. James ordered bistec a la Mexicana, which comes in a thin tomato-y sauce dotted with halved jalapeños that looked like bell pepper wedges at first glance. We thought this was the meaty thing that tons of other diners were eating but we were wrong. I’m not sure what the popular dish was, maybe carne asada? I didn’t ask. Just asking for a receipt caused enough trauma—I didn’t want to push my luck with the tough questions. (1/21/07)

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La Vuelta

I’ll admit to Long Island City dining ignorance. I don’t feel too bad because there’s not a whole lot of it to be informed about. I suspect that will change as condos continue popping up in the area and new residents bring higher standards.

But I recently started reviewing restaurants for (Hey, why not? I just hope it’s not a conflict to post my own takes here. I mean, these aren’t terribly useful and tend to be more about me than anything. What I’m paid to do is short, sweet and service oriented. Totally different beasts.) I need to represent diversity in neighborhood, culinary style and price range. It’s going to be tricky covering ten a month (that’s a lot of rice and beans, papi) because I’m accustomed to eating Asian (I know, that’s about as broad as Latin American) whenever possible and I started watching my damn points last week (yes, Weight Watchers. It’s laughable, I realize. But heck, if I even managed to shed a measly half-pound a week, that’ll be 26 gone by Christmas. I’m a turtle not a hare.) and lord knows I can’t turn down free food.

La_vuelta_empanadas I get the sense that La Vuelta does a brisk lunch and happy hour business and is trying to expand their reach. They recently started opening on Saturdays and will add Sundays next month. When we arrived around 8:30pm on a Saturday there were only two other tables occupied. It’s not surprising since the block is less than bustling.

La_vuelta_shrimp The food is all over the place (geographically, not haphazardly) with Argentinean skirt steak, cubanos, empanadas, nachos, and the like. We tried empanaditas, four tiny cheese filled pastries with salsa and two larger pork style crescents with bbq sauce. Not bad. James had said skirt steak, which came with mashed potatoes and chimmichurri. I went for grilled shrimp with coconut rice and a jalapeno-pineapple mojo (don’t tell anyone, but I’m not crazy about a lot of Western rice dishes. Biryani and nasi lemak: uh-huh. Paella and risotto: eh). They weren’t able to make the advertised pisco sours (no pisco) but caipirinhas and rioja sufficed.

Everything was well seasoned and the service nice as can be, but it’s definitely a neighborhood restaurant. And L.I.C. could surely use a few more.

La Vuelta *10-43 44th Dr., Long Island City, NY

Palo Santo

1/2 No matter what, I can never remember the name of this restaurant. I know it’s on Union Street, that the chef used to cook at Williamsburg’s La Brunette (a restaurant I always meant to try but never got around to before it closed) and that it consists of two Spanish words. And then I’m stuck so I have to sort through all Latin American listings in Park slope on Citisearch or New York (ok, not the latter—I just tested it and it’s nowhere to be found) to find it. Palo Santo, okay, I’m forcing it into my memory.

Palo_santo_gambas_1 It’s a curious place, stuck in the middle of a brownstone row and decorated in a woody willy-nilly fashion. There’s a warm, crafty vibe, enhanced by the front room’s fireplace. Reggae was the music of choice on my visit. I never went though a Bob Marley phase, but at least it's slightly more tolerable than Andean pan pipes or Gypsy Kings. Some commenter somewhere I can’t recall described the interior as looking like a ‘70s health food eatery and that’s not completely false, though I suspect they’re trying for more sophistication than that. Thankfully, sprouts are nowhere to be seen.

The menu changes daily and I forgot to take note of the chickpea strewn slaw that our shrimp a la plancha were served on. I’m not sure if it was the citrus used or an exotic herb that snuck in (the chef makes use of many esoteric items) but there was an overall bitter, acidic flavor that didn’t agree with me. That was the only miss, though. I forgot to change the setting on my camera after taking photos off the TV so everything ended up a dark, dull faux sepia toned mess.

Palo_santo_duck_mole_2 My duck mole was flavorful without being overwhelmingly rich as a fatty bird and dark sauce potentially could be. It came with a little corn cake topped with black beans that contained something crunchy. I want to say it was a fried skin of some sort but I don’t recall that being part of the description. I did ask about the two foreign-to-me herbs that enhanced the beans. They were Mexican papalo and pepicha, and no, I can't quite describe them beyond dubbing them forceful and distinct. You wouldn't want a mouthful.

James had seafood asapado, a soupy rice, which was kind of like a cross between risotto and bouillabaisse. We shared a hot from the oven banana chocolate dessert that was topped with melting cream. It beat another tired molten cake, that’s for sure. I refuse to eat those piping hot soft-centered sweets out of principle. I feel the same way about the oozing pucks as I do about rampant bad ‘80s music. There’s just no excuse in 2007.

Palo_santo_banana_chocolate_1 I’ve heard that if you sit at the bar you can order a $45 tasting menu that isn’t set in stone. I guess that’s an omakase. That doesn’t sound unreasonable, yet I would’ve preferred that the dishes cost a few dollars less apiece. The prices were slightly high (entrees $20+) for a casual weeknight dinner (though it looks like they have a more moderately priced menu during the day), and when you could easily spend $100 for two (which I didn’t) cash only seems silly.

Palo Santo * 652 Union St., Brooklyn, NY